After trillions of dollars in welfare spending, “we’re losing the War on Poverty,” said Representative Paul Ryan (R–WI) last week.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the famous “War on Poverty,” putting into place a multitude of government means-tested welfare programs and kicking off what has come to a five-decade total of nearly $20 trillion in federal and state welfare spending.
What has been the result? A poverty rate that has remained basically stagnant since the War on Poverty began.
Part of the reason welfare doesn’t have much impact on the poverty rate is that hardly any of the welfare benefits households receive are counted when calculating a household’s income. The poverty measure doesn’t really tell us very much about poverty. However, it does provide a good measure of self-sufficiency. While welfare has no doubt boosted living standards for recipients, self-sufficiency rates have remained virtually stagnant since the mid-1960s.
Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, testifying before Congress, touched on the human cost of a welfare system that fails to promote work:
Their talents and gifts are lost to the larger community. And what’s important is the spirit of the human, and if we have people just taking, they lose their spirit; they don’t become integrated into the community. So the giving of programs and money is not the answer to human dignity.
Of the roughly 80 federally funded means-tested welfare programs, only a handful include any type of work requirement. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, created under the 1996 welfare reform act, did insert a work requirement into the largest cash welfare program. But the Obama Administration took it upon itself last year to bypass the law by allowing states to waive work requirements. The Administration has also been issuing waivers to allow states to bypass work requirements for able-bodied adults receiving food stamps. Anderson continues:
I’m pleading with you: don’t waive the [TANF] work requirement. It is so vital for when people are coming in to know that something’s expected out of them. I don’t think that we can go back to the notion that when you come in to get a service, nothing’s expected out of you.
Welfare should be based on the principle of self-sufficiency. It should encourage opportunity rather than government dependence. Instead of continuing the same failed path of anti-poverty policies, lawmakers should reform welfare to encourage work.
“We should focus on results,” stated Ryan at the hearing. “We should focus on how many people get off public assistance—because they have a good job.”